Friday, January 11, 2008

Closing thoughts from CES 2008

Having survived yet another CES, I look back at the week with my head slightly askew, kind of like Scooby just as it dawned on him that he really needed a snack.

If you've never been to CES, it's tough to grasp just how immense the show is.  And, if you have any hope of trying to get around the show to see more than a little of what's going on, you end up on news blackout.  Whether working a booth, in meetings, walking the floor, or (most likely) doing all the above, most people don't have time to sit down and properly read the show daily, newspapers, or blogs.  At best, you hope to hear about the buzz from other folks who’ll fill you in on what you need to see.  Last year, I was thrilled to be part of the team responsible for creating and benefiting from that buzz.

However, this year seemed a bit muted, which is why I’m scratching my head.  Maybe we’re just in a technology trough, and next year will be a big buzz year again.  The big pre-show stories were the Warner decision on Blu-ray and Bill G’s final CES keynote.  Once the show started, the Panasonic 150” plasma, the bevy of ultra-thin panels (led by Pioneer’s 9 mm thin Kuro concept), and Sony’s OLED all drew more than their fair share of attention.  But, nothing really electrified the many folks with whom I spoke.  Heck, as I boarded my Southwest flight from LAS-SFO tonight, a flight attendant asked me if I was as disappointed by the show as others.  I mean, heck...she was on the ground long enough between flights to run out to grab a sandwich, and she’s hearing that the buzz is that there’s, uh, no buzz?  Wow.

Even some of the stuff that seemed like it should’ve been more buzz-worthy, wasn’t.  One of the better-kept secrets this year was that Aliph, the folks behind the Jawbone Bluetooth earpiece, conducted a trade-in program in the main CES concierge tent.  Anyone who brought a non-Aliph headset to their stand received in exchange a brand new Jawbone, gratis.

Aliph has obviously made great money off of the many folks like me who paid well north of $100 for our Jawbones soon after introduction, meaning they can afford to give away thousands of headsets, particularly with Sequoia supposedly throwing in another $30 million in funding last week.

The Jawbone’s noise cancellation capabilities quickly became the key selling feature of the product, but I find its battery life to be just as valuable--a few months ago, I spent 6 1/2 hours straight on calls.  My BlackBerry needed lots of wall power, but the Jawbone charged (pun intended) through the day admirably.  When I see a fellow Jawbone user, I make a mental note that that person gets it.  I bought the Jawbone because of its awesome capabilities, not because I was striving to look like Dieter from Sprockets.

I wear my Jawbone pretty much all the time.  Yes, I know that I look like a dork, thank you.  But, the design doesn’t lend itself to a reasonable carrying method, so you’re stuck with it on your ear.  And, if you keep the stock, out-of-the-package Jawbone on your ear all day, odds are your ear’s gonna hurt, since the earpieces Aliph ships with the product are absolute rubbish.  Crap.  Totally.  When I first bought my Jawbone, I made it about two hours before the inside of my ear was screaming in pain.  Experimenting with the other bundled earpieces made no difference, resulting in either a worse, still-painful fit, or no fit at all.  Thank heavens for the blogosphere--within 15 minutes, I’d discovered that the unanimous mod for the Jawbone is to purchase Jabra’s replacement MiniGels ($5.49 from  Replacing the stock, too-hard plastic earpiece with the Jabra ear gels is the only thing that prevented me from returning the Jawbone.  Judging from the number of my friends and colleagues who’ve also made the same mod, I’d posit that there are three types of Jawbone users: A) those who’ve made the Jabra mod, and love the fit, feel, and improvement in audio clarity; B) those who are less than thrilled with the stock earpieces, but put up with them because they don’t realize there’s a better alternative; and C) those who are fortunate enough to experience no discomfort and suitable audio quality with the stock earpieces.  I haven’t met anyone in group C yet.

I relate this story because tonight on the monorail at the airport, a fellow passenger saw my Jawbone on my ear, and asked how I was able to wear it all the time.  He told me that he’d taken part in the exchange program, and was really looking forward to using his new Jawbone--but that he couldn’t have it in his ear for more than a few minutes before the discomfort headed towards unbearable.  As I’ve done now at least a couple of hundred times, I popped the headset off my ear to show him the comfy Jabra MiniGel, directing him to the website (for which I should probably figure out some kind of affiliate or referral deal).  He was very thankful, and looked forward to paying the extra fin to make the Jawbone usable.

Which brings me to my point.

History is filled with items which are almost fully baked, but fall just short of really being the full monty.  The Jawbone is one of these.  Aliph has known they’ve had a problem since the day they shipped their first headset, yet they appear to have done nothing whatsoever to react to the issue.  In these days of fleeting brand loyalty, ignoring just one ingredient can ruin the recipe, causing otherwise loyal customers to seek out new solutions from other vendors, or forcing customers to throw a few more bucks at something to make it right--leaving a sour taste in the mouth.  Heck, I *loved* my Plantronics 640 and 655 headsets, which I still believe are a dramatically better form factor than the Jawbone.  But, the 640 didn’t perform noise cancellation, causing the remote party to believe that I was shooting a Will It Blend? commercial.  The follow-on 655 did a passable job of noise cancellation, but was slow as molasses.  Having to train myself to count to three-Mississippi before saying hello when the phone rang was a real drag.  I might still be using my 655, but for one thing--the carrying holster was designed to such poor tolerances that getting the 655 to actually charge was a strenuous exercise in accuracy every single night.  Trying to get the charging contacts to line up just right, I felt like the diamond cutter in the back of the Mercury Marquis (really, I was a wee lad when that commercial was popular...thank god for the Saturday Night Live spoof).  Just as I know I wasn’t alone with the 655 charging issue, I’m obviously not alone with the Jawbone earpiece comfort issue.

Customization is one thing.  I drive a Mini Cooper S.  Today, you can order a Mini with a massive number of options providing an immense number of permutations, allowing drivers to roll their own to best suit their personalities.  But, inherent functionality is another thing.  How can a company ignore a known issue for this long, one that’s hellaciously easy to solve?  We’re talking an earpiece supplier, not an ASIC re-design.

Lest you think I’m unhappy with my Jawbone, I’m not.  I’m annoyed that they still ship these lousy earpieces, sure, and that I had to throw more coin to get the product to actually fit my definition of “works right”.  But I relate the story about the guy at the airport not to pick a (Jaw)bone with Aliph.  I relate the story because he was the *sixth* person to ask me the question about wearability comfort in the last 3 days.  Folks, that’s not even a trend.  That’s a problem, and a big one at that.  I don’t know if Aliph isn’t listening to customer feedback, if they don’t care, if they’re growing too fast to be able to respond, whatever.  But, the day that somebody comes out with a headset that has similar (or better) noise canceling technology, that fits my ear as comfortably as my 640 and 655 did, that has a convenient mechanism for carrying the headset (a la the 640 and 655) rather than having to keep it on the ear, and that even approaches the battery life of the Jawbone, I’m gone.  That might be the next version of the Jawbone, that might be a new headset from established players like Plantronics or Jabra, or it could be from the next hot startup.  Sure, I’m an early adopter, the guy that many of my friends and colleagues rely on for newtech advice, but I still carry a 2G iPod (which I’m looking forward to plugging into that 64 GB NAND MacBook I hope is announced at Macworld next week).  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But if it is broke, don’t expect any consumer loyalty whatsoever.

So, Aliph, here's my offer--when you're finally ready to ship a suitably great earpiece with your otherwise kick-ass headset, let me know.  I'll be happy to check it out.  Fix the bad ingredient, and inspire customer loyalty, rather than the current state of one and half thumbs up.

In a year largely devoid of buzz, Aliph could’ve been heard better.  Hopefully, they will be.

1 comment:

  1. An aside about the Jawbone. I'd been using a Sony HB-808, which I had modified for in-ear use (rather than the over-the-ear-loop) using the clip-on Griffin adapters for the original iPod earphones. I work in a data center, which is very noisy, and the in-ear approach lets me turn the volume of the headset down, while keeping other noise out of my ears. Still, I had to constantly fuss with the phone, to mute and un-mute the micropone of the headset in that noisy space.

    Enter the Jawbone, and it's promise of noise cancellation. I paid the big bucks, and it was GREAT for the people on the OTHER end of the phone. I didn't have to mute the micropone all the time. BUT, the earbud was painful, and I had to keep pressing it up against my ear to hear. And it defeated my attempts to use the Griffin bits (or an older Jabra ear-cork). At best, I got the in-ear part to work, but it no longer touched my cheek, so the noise cancellation failed.

    Finally, at this year's MacWorld, on the last row of the South Hall, I found a company selling iPod earphone covers like the Griffin part, except that the silicone in-ear bit mounts at a 45-degree angle instead of the 0-degree of the Griffin. And, it's a tighter fit than the Griffin! It grabbed the round cork of the Jawbone, AND it helps push the Jawbone against my cheek. NOW the Jawbone is the perfect headset for me. (The vendor even sells these headphone adapters in black plastic, as well as white.)